Ross: Could planes only have one pilot someday?

Nov 23, 2022, 7:43 AM | Updated: 10:11 am
An inside view of the cockpit of a Boeing 737-A is seen during a Boeing ecoDemonstrator program at Washington Reagan National Airport (DCA) in Arlington Virginia on July 28, 2021. (Photo by Olivier DOULIERY / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)
(Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

On Monday, there was a story about a new idea to increase the efficiency of air travel proposed by the International Civil Aviation Organization, which controls global aviation safety rules.

As Geoff Colvin of Fortune magazine reported, it’s part of a steady evolution toward more automation in the cockpit.

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“Back in the 1950s, commercial airliners had five people in the cockpit, a pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer, navigator, and radio operator,” Colvin explained. “Technology has reduced that number to two, and now airlines and regulators are pushing for just one.”

Just one pilot in the cockpit. That would free up more pilots to compensate for crew shortages, and of course, save money. But…

“What if something happened to that one pilot?” Colvin asked.

Which is exactly what was going through the mind of everyone listening to that report. And as we soon learned – it was going through the mind of an American Eagle co-pilot on Saturday just after takeoff from Chicago.

“The American Eagle flight took off from Chicago on its way to Columbus, Ohio, Saturday night, but nearly 30 minutes later, this call was made from one of the pilots via live ATC dotnet. ‘Boy 36, we return; captain is incapacitated.’ The incapacitated captain later died at a hospital,” the nightly news report on the incident read.

He suffered a heart attack. But the co-pilot quickly turned around and landed safely.

And if ever there was a sequence of events to make it appear that the cosmos is trying to tell us something – this is it.

In fact, the one-pilot idea is now the trending topic on the Professional Pilots Rumor Network – where cockpit crews talk anonymously to each other about what really happens after takeoff.

Some of them make the argument that planes have crashed because there were two pilots – who couldn’t agree on what to do. Or because one incorrectly assumed that the other one had the problem under control and vice versa.

But at the same time, I’m sure there are also situations when that second pilot saved the day. Like on Saturday.

According to Geoff Colvin, this is just a proposal. And if there is a change, it would happen in stages.

“Possible next step would be allowing two pilots instead of three on long haul flights, with just one pilot in the cockpit at any given time other than takeoff and landing,” Colvin said before asking, “But will airliners someday fly with just one pilot on board? The answer may not lie with technology, but rather with passengers and what they’ll accept.”

And I know how I plan to vote.

Dave Ross on KIRO Newsradio 97.3 FM
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Ross: Could planes only have one pilot someday?